My Take on the News

The Mitzrayim Within

Several years ago, on the last night of Pesach, I heard a shmuess from Rav Chaim Walkin, the famed mashgiach. Rav Walkin used to come to Bayit Vegan from Givat Shaul every year at the end of Pesach to deliver a shmuess at Chanichei Hayeshivos, the shul where Rav Shlomo Wolbe used to daven. He would arrive by car before Yom Tov and then return home on foot. In recent years, though, it has become difficult for him to make the trip.

In that shmuess, Rav Walkin quoted the posuk at the beginning of Parshas Bo: “And so that you shall relate, in the ears of your son and your son’s son, how I played with Egypt and My signs that I placed upon them.” Rav Walkin asked: “What does it mean that Hashem ‘played’ with the Egyptians? That He made a mockery out of them? What is the purpose of that?”

He went on to relate that his father, Rav Shmuel Dovid Walkin learned in Mir, Slabodka and Radin. After the war, he moved to America and served as the rov of a shul. In Radin, Rav Shmuel Dovid was very close to the Chofetz Chaim. He would often describe how the Chofetz Chaim abhorred frivolity; however, he added that there was one time when he heard the Chofetz Chaim laughing. That took place when someone made a mocking comment about Maskilim, or something of that nature. After all, leitzanus about avodah zarah is permissible.

Rav Chaim Walkin went on to connect this subject to the Yom Tov of Pesach. Hashem took the Jewish people out of Mitzrayim, he said, but there was something else that had to be done as well: Mitzrayim had to be taken out of the people. That, too, is very difficult. How was it possible to erase the imprint that was left on the Bnei Yisroel by the land where they lived for so many years?

Leitzanus – mockery – is the most effective force in the world for expunging an impression. A single frivolous comment can negate the effects of one hundred admonitions; by the same token, it can obliterate even the most meaningful impression. That is why Hashem made a mockery out of the Egyptians – to take Mitzrayim out of the Jewish people.

You now have a beautiful vort to share on the Seder night.

 

Netanyahu Is Ill? The Police Will Wait

Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu was in Washington (where he visited the White House and attended the AIPAC conference) and in New York (where he visiting the United Nations and joined Sheldon Adelson for a meal). In both places, he received a reception fit for a king. He enjoyed himself immensely; these experiences always make him thrilled. When he returned to Israel, though, he was thrust directly into a political maelstrom, with talk of moving up the elections due to the controversy over the draft law. Netanyahu somehow managed to survive that crisis and the draft law passed its preliminary reading. What will happen now? We can only pray for Hashem’s mercy.

The long-suffering prime minister found himself mired not only in a political crisis, but in his own legal woes as well. Before he left for America, Netanyahu and his wife were interrogated concurrently by the police. He was questioned in Yerushalayim, while Mrs. Netanyahu was interrogated at the offices of Lahav 443 in Lod. The purpose of this was to prevent the Netanyahus from telling each other about the questions they were asked, which would cause the police to lose the element of surprise. The prime minister flew to America immediately after his interrogation.

But that was not the end of the story. The police later informed Netanyahu that they planned to question him again, this time to confront him with the information they received from Nir Hefetz, the latest state witness. Hefetz is the fourth person to agree to serve as a state witness against Netanyahu, after Mickey Ganor (in the submarine case), Ari Harow, and Shlomo Filber. They may even stage a recorded confrontation between the two. But Netanyahu notified the police that he is ill.

The prime minister, in fact, was sick. Last week, he called Yariv Levin, the Minister of Tourism and asked him to work on resolving the crisis over the draft law. Levin told Netanyahu that he was sick and that what he had was contagious. Netanyahu was undeterred, met with Levin and contracted the illness himself.

The police can be patient. After a few days Netanyahu will recover. Like a hunter waiting to trap his prey, they are biding their time, waiting to strike.

 

A Win for Responsibility

As soon as the specter of early elections had dissipated, a debate began over who deserved the credit. That is the way things work in this country. An advisor to one of the government ministers approached me and shouted at me, “Did you hear that the news praised Deri? What chutzpah! If not for my employer, nothing would have been accomplished!” This man works for Minister Yariv Levin.

These things happen. We have long grown accustomed to the battles for credit. On the day after the draft law was approved, the Israeli media was preoccupied by their usual question: Who was the winner? They decided that Avigdor Lieberman was the biggest winner, followed by Ministers Bennett and Shaked.

Let them enjoy their accolades; we have no interest in competing for this type of honor. Nor do we feel a sense of triumph at this time. This entire process was forced on us by the justices of the Supreme Court, who have no respect for people who toil in Torah learning. In their conceit, the judges believe that the world revolves around them. But we know that the Torah is the force that truly sustains the world.

I was in the Knesset during the vote. MK Yoav Ben-Tzur delivered a speech that will certainly be recorded in the annals of history. I watched as Netanyahu entered the room to vote. Yoav Horowitz, the director of his office, conferred quietly with Aryeh Deri and Yoav Ben-Tzur on the side. There were no smiles or handshakes exchanged between them. At the most, they were satisfied; they may have sighed in relief as well. But they were not ebullient. I watched our contingent in the Knesset. Some of them left during Yair Lapid’s hateful speech, while others remained but paid no attention to him. After the vote was concluded, the atmosphere was not celebratory. There was only a sense of relief that another step had been taken to solve the problem of the draft. The real winner, I would say, is the concept of responsibility.

 

Torah – The Key to Jewish Survival

Last Tuesday, at 8 p.m., MK Yoav Ben-Tzur took the podium in the Knesset to present the draft law. The law did not belong to Ben-Tzur alone. It was formulated by all of the chareidi MKs, but since his name appears first on the alphabetized list of the law’s authors, he was given the privilege of presenting it. He spoke very well, delivering an address that left a deep impression on many of his listeners.

“My friends, members of the Knesset,” he began, “our nation is not like any other nation. Every other nation in the world has a culture that was formed in its own land. The American nation discovered America first, and only then was American culture created. America was there first, and the holiday of Thanksgiving came next. The country was the vessel in which the culture was created. If America had not existed, then American culture would not have existed. But for the people of Israel, it is the exact opposite: The culture was created first, with its holidays, its language, its laws and its customs, and only then was there a land. Our land is a small portion, even if it is an important one, of Jewish culture. It is part of a much larger whole.

“Now, I ask you: Who preserves that greater whole? Who maintains the culture that has existed for millennia, throughout the years of our exile and in every corner of the Diaspora – in Morocco, in Iraq, in Iran, in Poland, and in Yemen? Isn’t that accomplished by the Torah scholars? If there had been no students of the Torah, if there had been no yeshiva world, throughout the thousands of years of our exile, would anyone even have known what a Jew is? Wouldn’t the Torah and Tanach, the Book of Books of the Jewish people, have been forgotten? Would anyone have known about the Jewish nation’s connection to Israel and Yerushalayim? Without the students of the Torah, what chance would there have been for all the Jews of the Diaspora, throughout the world, to gather here in Eretz Yisroel and in Yerushalayim? What would have been the odds that Margi from Morocco, Avigdor Lieberman from Russia, Yair Lapid from Serbia, Moshe Kachlon from Tripoli, and Eitan Cabel from Yemen would all have come together from the four corners of the earth, specifically here in Eretz Yisroel, united by a single Tanach and a single culture as one nation?

“But after all this, there are people who have the audacity to ask why the yeshiva bochurim are not ‘serving the country.’ The idea that Torah study has value is not a matter of faith; it is a proven historical fact. True, this idea may not be popular among some of the parties; there may be those who feel that following the truth, the facts, and the reality conflicts with the electoral interests of their parties. But when we think about it, there is no one in this legislature who can deny the simple fact that the students of Torah throughout the generations are the people who have brought us to this point.”

 

The Achievements of Lomdei Torah

Allow me to quote another portion of his speech. “The time has come to say this loudly and clearly,” Ben-Tzur announced. “Without the lomdei Torah, we would not be here today. Hashem has given us the privilege of standing here today and presenting the law that is the most equitable, the most logical, and the most obviously needed. This law will recognize the value of Torah study as a service to this nation, this people, and this homeland. I ask you – my friends, the members of the Knesset, my brothers and fellow members of my people not to do evil. This is the time for us to recognize and show our gratitude to the Torah world for preserving our heritage, our tradition, and our Jewish culture for thousands of years. This is precisely the time for us to give thanks to them for their Torah learning and for our very existence here. At this time, things such as the electorate, the threshold for entering the Knesset, the primaries, or the needs of the coalition or opposition should not dictate our actions or rewrite the history of our nation, our people, and our land. Not everything needs to be decided based on narrow political considerations. There are things that should be above all political concerns, and this is precisely one of the areas in which we must all be united. For the Tanach, the Torah, and the land belong to all of us – and they are ours only because of the Torah world and the world of yeshivos. Every one of you who votes in favor of this law will be remembered for generations as a person who helped save the basis of the existence of the Jewish nation and the land of Israel, and who helped preserve and perpetuate the Judaism that is thousands of years old, just as it preserved us throughout our millennia in exile. Every vote against the law, regardless of the reason – whether it is to remain above the electoral threshold, to maintain mandates in the Knesset, or for other reasons – is a vote in denial of the very basis of our existence for thousands of years.”

Ben-Tzur then directed a few words to the community of bnei Torah: “As for you, the bnei Torah, yeshiva bochurim, and kollel yungeleit, I would like to say one thing to you: Thank you. You are fortunate to be the pillars of the Jewish nation, and we are privileged to have you, along with the roshei yeshivos who are moser nefesh – I have no other term for it – for the sake of the Torah world, so that the Torah will not depart from us or our descendants for eternity. It is in your merit that we are here. No one disputes the importance of the IDF, the defense forces of the State of Israel, the army whose soldiers are engaged in holy work and make tremendous sacrifices to protect their homeland. We owe them, as well, a tremendous debt of thanks. But the fact that we are all here today teaches us that the importance and necessity of the Torah world are undeniable. I ask you again, my friends, to put all your other considerations aside at this time and to sanctify the name of G-d. Express your thanks to those who learn Torah, recognize the value of Torah study, and unite as a single nation, with one Torah and one land. Thank you very much.”

 

A Persecuted Premier

Let us try to put ourselves in Netanyahu’s shoes: He has been absorbing more attacks than most human beings can tolerate, and he has become the target of hatred. In a separate article in this newspaper, you can read about what he was forced to hear during a special “Forty Signatures” discussion in the Knesset. But that is nothing in comparison to the media’s obsessive ongoing assaults on him. It should come as no surprise that he is gaining popularity in the polls. The Israeli public detests this type of persecution.

 

It seems as if there is a competition to determine who can hurl the greatest amount of invective at the prime minister. Last Tuesday morning, it was still unclear whether the coalition crisis was coming to an end. That morning, the political analysts asserted that Netanyahu was dragging his feet because he wanted new elections. In the afternoon, when his pleas – or threats – to Lieberman and his party bore fruit, the analysts “explained” that Netanyahu was responsible for the zigzagging: “Apparently, he has decided that elections would not be good for him.” Everything Netanyahu does is portrayed as a ploy. Everything he says is considered devious and scheming, but even when he remains silent, it is interpreted in the same way.

At the end of the discussion in the Knesset, Netanyahu had a fitting response to their criticism. His response to the opposition at 8:00 on Tuesday – just before the evening news programs – was even better. “I am glad to see that the color has returned to your faces,” Netanyahu told them, taunting them that they should be relieved when it became clear that the elections would not be moved up. The Zionist Camp is much more fearful of new elections than the Likud party; the latter has very little concern, if any, about the outcome.

Not long ago, the results of a survey were publicized. Likud voters were asked to what degree they believed in the prime minister’s innocence. Fifty percent of the respondents asserted that they were convinced “to a great degree” of his innocence, while 34 percent said that their faith in his innocence was “average.” The remaining 16 percent said that they did not believe, or believed only slightly, that he was guiltless. The host of the program summed up the findings of the poll as follows: “As you can see, even in the Likud only half of the voters believe in his innocence.” That was a blatant distortion of the survey’s results. Half of the voters believed “to a large degree” that Netanyahu is innocent, but another 34 percent accepted it partially as well. As we know, the media will never allow themselves to be confused by the facts.

There have been days of madness in the Knesset, when accusations of scheming flew in every direction. The rancor eventually died down, but the past week has left a bitter taste. The political commentators have identified the “winners” and the “losers” from this episode. Justice Minister Shaked managed to extinguish the flames of controversy, Netanyahu retained his position, Deri worked quietly and ended the crisis, the chareidim received their law, and Kachlon had his budget passed.

In my mind, the person who proved himself during these events – I do not like to describe it as “winning” – was Meir Porush. It was Porush, along with Ariel Attias and Moshe Gafni, who spearheaded the effort to deal with this loaded issue during this emotionally charged time. He worked quietly, with insight and responsibility, and he succeeded.

 

Reporters Who Know Nothing

Speaking of the draft law, I have read many articles and opinion pieces on the subject, and I have found that the writers discuss everything possible – except the actual provisions of the law. Does anyone know what the law actually says? Evidently, the journalists do not.

There were times when I read an article twice, and I discovered that the writers’ lack of information – or lack of understanding – was bound to confuse the readers. In many instances, I found that the journalists who report on the Knesset simply had no comprehension of the issues they were writing about.

Let me set the record straight. The title of this bill is “Proposed Law of Security Service (Amendment – Establishing the Status of Torah Students), 5778 – 2018.” The bill bears the signatures of Yoav Ben-Tzur (who presented the law in the Knesset plenum by virtue of the fact that he was first on the list), Moshe Gafni, Uri Maklev, Michoel Malchieli, Yaakov Margi, Menachem Eliezer Moses, Yaakov Asher, Yisroel Asher, and Yitzchok Vaknin. The law that was passed is actually a more moderate version of the one that was formulated first, which took the form of a Basic Law. That version of the law was essentially a direct attack on the Supreme Court. However, we are always somewhat concerned about Basic Laws, even those that we propose.

For every bill that is presented to the Knesset, an abridged version is prepared for the members of the Knesset to review. This will spare them the necessity of having to exert their intellects in order to understand the bills. I will quote the text of that summary, so that you can have an idea of the law’s provisions: “This bill is intended to introduce changes to chapter C-1 of the Security Service Law regarding the integration of graduates of yeshivos and chareidi educational institutions [into the army]. This is in light of the centrality of the value of Torah study… This bill seeks to establish that the Minister of Defense will defer the service of yeshiva students in accordance with the criteria established in the law. In addition, this bill seeks to cancel the second adjustment period specified in the Security Service Law, and in its place to call for a single adjustment period that will continue for four years, which will be automatically extended if the enlistment goals set by the government are met. Similarly, it is proposed to alter the definition of the term ‘graduate of a chareidi school’ [with regard to meeting the enlistment quotas], so that it will not include a candidate for military service who declares that he is not religiously observant. It is proposed to establish that if the enlistment goals are not met in any year beginning with 2021, the government will be obligated to present a solution via the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for the failure to meet those goals. This solution will have to be approved by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee or by the Knesset plenum.” This is a synopsis of the law. The actual text of the bill spans six pages.

 

No Rest for a Knesset Member

The Knesset has now begun its recess, which will continue through Yom Haatzmaut, the fifth day of Iyar. It is a very long vacation, which makes this a good time for us to focus on what the members of the Knesset do.

The members of the Knesset are typically inundated with work. First and foremost, they must contend with requests for help from the public. That should be the first obligation of every member of the Knesset. The citizens of Israel contact their Knesset members for assistance with a wide variety of subjects, but perhaps the most common request is for help dealing with the agencies of the government, especially the National Insurance Institute. The second most common request, from my experience, is for assistance dealing with Israel’s health funds. We do not have exact statistics, but we are familiar with the range of requests that are received.

In addition, the members of the Knesset advocate for services such as public transportation, day care, and so forth. These are initiatives that the legislators adopt on their own accord. And then, of course, they are busy with all the tools of their parliamentary work: speeches in the Knesset, presentations of new bills, motions for the agenda, parliamentary queries, and so forth. They also participate in committees. A member of the Knesset – especially a diligent one – can expect to be contending with a massive workload, from morning until night. (The committees begin meeting at 8:00 in the morning, and plenary sittings sometimes end at 9:00 or 10:00 in the evening.) In short, being a member of the Knesset is a weighty responsibility, much more than it is a position of power.

 

What Does a Parliamentary Query Do?

One of the tools available to a member of the Knesset is a parliamentary query. This device can often be extremely beneficial. For instance, if a citizen is being mistreated by a government entity, or a government institution is not doing its job properly, there will almost always be a member of the Knesset who will submit a parliamentary query on the subject. That query will reach the relevant minister in the government, who will speak to the right people in the field. Very often, this will lead to sudden progress.

For instance, a citizen may file a complaint with the police about the theft of a Sefer Torah. The police will handle the case at their own pace, but then a parliamentary query will be filed. The query will reach Minister Erdan, who will contact the commissioner of the police force. The question will be passed on to the district commander of the police, who will relay it to the commander of the station handling the case. Finally, it will reach the investigators themselves. You can imagine that a junior police officer will not be particularly excited to fill out a report that his immediate superior will relay to the district commander, who will pass it on to the police commissioner and the Minister of Internal Security. This has happened in more than one instance (in fact, in many cases) in which important investigations were lying dormant. As soon as the query was filed, the cases were dusted off and the police began pursuing the issues again, with renewed determination. In general, this leads to results. And the subject of police investigations is just one example of the efficacy of a parliamentary query.

Before a member of the Knesset takes up a cause, he makes sure to find out the facts. A parliamentary query can be helpful for that purpose as well. For instance, he may ask how many home-based day care centers the Ministry of Welfare has agreed to fund in various cities or neighborhoods and what the level of demand is. The answers may often reveal that there is discrimination. Alternatively, a Knesset member may inquire about the number of Shabbos work permits that were issued in a particular year, the identities of the recipients, and the justifications for the permits. A parliamentary query can also be a tool for collecting important information, such as the number of incidents of vandalism at shuls that took place in a certain year, as well as how many cases were investigated, how many suspects were apprehended, and how many of them were brought to justice. We often find that the authorities in this country take a lackadaisical approach to crimes involving Sifrei Torah. By asking the right questions, the members of the Knesset can determine when they are failing to take their duties seriously.

 

Thousands of Bills on the Knesset Table

Thousands of bills have been placed on the Knesset table. To be more precise, 4,300 laws have been proposed since the beginning of this Knesset’s term. After the bills were proposed, they were completely ignored.

Every week, dozens of Knesset members submit bills to the Knesset for consideration. There was a speaker of the Knesset who once dubbed these bills “legal statements.” These are bills that are meant to make a statement, but that no one believes will ever become actual law. This is a practice that has come under fire from Justice Minister Shaked, who intends to terminate it.

Only a small number of these bills are actually brought to a vote in their preliminary reading. Every party has a weekly quota that limits the number of bills it can propose. The first hurdle that a Knesset member must overcome in order to present a bill is for it to be accepted by his party within its weekly quota. Next, he must secure the support of the Ministerial Legislative Committee, which opposes the majority of the laws that are proposed. Most of the time, their opposition is based on the economic cost of the laws, but there are sometimes other considerations, most commonly the fact that the relevant minister is opposed. After all, what minister would agree to a law that would cause changes within his ministry? Therefore, even if a member of the opposition manages to bring a bill to a vote in the Knesset plenum, it is a virtual certainty that the bill will be defeated by the coalition. Furthermore, if a law proposed by a member of the coalition is opposed by the ministerial committee, he is obligated to remove the law from the agenda. The only way that a bill has a chance of being passed is if it does not have much impact. The weaker the bill, the greater are its chances of being passed into law.

This week – the final week of the winter assembly – a large number of bills were submitted once again. I will quote a couple of them.

First, there was a bill jointly proposed by MKs Uri Maklev, Moshe Gafni, Yaakov Asher, and Eitan Cabel. This law would place limits on a municipality’s ability to install cameras to fine motorists for parking illegally. The first limitation would be a requirement for the city to receive official authorization to install the cameras. I imagine that the municipal governments will overcome this requirement with ease. The second stipulation is that there must be appropriate signage. That, too, is something that I cannot imagine will present much of an obstacle to a city government; however, it will certainly prevent us from becoming a country where law-abiding citizens inadvertently become liable to penalties. (However, I believe that many cities already post warnings about the presence of cameras.)

Another law was submitted by Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid, who claims to be “pro-religious.” Lavie’s bill proposes that girls seeking an exemption from the draft should be required to make a declaration before a judge or dayan that they are religious. This would end the current practice, in which a representative of a bais din visits every girls’ school and seminary and collects the signatures of all the students on those declarations, which are then passed on to the army.

What is to be gained from forcing the girls to make personal appearances before a judge or dayan rather than having the dayan come to their schools? Lavie admits her agenda: “It is to prevent them from being pressured not to enlist in the army.”

 

Books Behind Bars

The Arabs also use parliamentary queries for their own purposes – to benefit Palestinian prisoners in Israel jails. Recently, I listened as Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Internal Security, responded to a question from Hanin Zoabi, the infamous Knesset member who joined the Mavi Marmara flotilla. I am always infuriated by her audacity and her cynical use of the Israeli parliament. This was her question: “It has been reported that for political reasons, the Prison Service has overstepped its authority and is not permitting books to be brought into the prisons. I would like to ask: First, is this true? Second, if so, what are the criteria for preventing literature and books from reaching a prisoner? Third, how and to whom should an appeal be submitted against the refusal to permit a book? Fourth, who is authorized to decide what may be brought into the prison and what is banned? Thank you.”

Gilad Erdan responded, “First, the questioner’s statement that books were banned from the prison for political reasons is not accurate. The Prison Service has fixed regulations, which I could present to you as well, but they are simply very long and detailed. Since the question did not deal with a specific case, I will describe the policies in general. Based on what I have been told by the Prison Service, the inmates have access to libraries containing books for reading. In addition, a prisoner may be given permission to receive reading material from outside the prison, but this is subject to several criteria specified in the prison regulations. The general criteria are that this material must not pose a danger to the security of the state or the prison, that the material has not been prohibited by the head of the intelligence division of the Prison Service, and that the material is not obscene, anti-Semitic, or intended to influence a person to change his religion.”

I learned two things from this exchange. First, these prisoners – who are living in Israeli prisons under conditions typical of a vacation resort – have access to libraries, where they can borrow books to read. And second, it is prohibited to bring material into a prison that might influence someone to change his religion. That is very interesting.

 

Elevator Ethics

Technological advancement has brought many problems in its wake. At the same time, modern technology has provided us with some valuable conveniences – such as the elevator.

I am not the first to contemplate the question of what a person should do when he is in an elevator with someone else. During the few seconds of the elevator ride, should he make conversation or remain silent? Should he compliment his fellow passenger on his tie, or should he assume that his temporary companion prefers not to have others make comments about him? Should he remain mute, or is that taking the risk that the stranger in the elevator may conclude that chareidim are unfriendly? In short, those few seconds between floors can be cause for a feverish inner debate.

This week, a short trip in an elevator gave me occasion to ponder the obligation of hakoras hatov. I found myself wondering what triggers the requirement of hakoras hatov: the fact that one has received something or the fact that the benefactor has given something. In case you are thinking that there is no real difference between the possibilities, consider this: When I approached the elevator, there was a man in the process of pressing the button. The elevator arrived, and we both stepped inside; of course, he went first. He then proceeded to press the button for the same floor that was my own destination. This was hardly surprising, since the building consisted of only three stories. We had entered the elevator on the ground floor, and he was certainly going to choose one of the other two floors.

In any event, I wondered if it was incumbent on me to thank him. After all, he had pressed the button for his own benefit; he had given me nothing. On the other hand, I had received something, since I did not have to press a button on my own; I was able to lean casually against the mirrored wall for an extra couple of seconds. Therefore, was there any need for me to express gratitude?

“Thank you,” I said as we left the elevator. He looked at me in puzzlement.